A glaring omission in St. Louis

By Bryan Burwell
Updated: July 15, 2009

ST. LOUIS — The big scoreboard in center field at Busch Stadium kept rolling the slow-motion highlights of so many past and present Cardinals heroes.

It was the sixth inning of Tuesday night’s MLB All-Star Game, and the red sea of Cardinal Nation stood and cheered as all those old stars came alive on the video screen, traveling from one decade to the next in a dizzy blur.

As baseball parties go, this was the perfect final touch for this Cardinal-centric All-Star celebration. But even the best parties have a few surprising no-shows and disappointing omissions, and this video tribute only highlighted the fact that one of the most historic names in St. Louis baseball history was neither present nor accounted for.

And no it wasn’t the defrocked home run king Mark McGwire, who remains in self-imposed exile, far away from those inquiring investigative eyes. Big Mac was out of sight and out of mind by choice and necessity. No, the man whose presence was missing — and most surely needed — from the All-Star party was the late Curt Flood.

Mention Flood’s name around the All-Star clubhouses, and the reactions are mixed with touches of vague recognition.

“He was the first (baseball) free agent, right?” asked a smiling Mark Teixeira with a hint of uncertainty.

“He’s a guy who helped us get to where we are today,” said a more serious Ryan Howard. “I am kind of young, so my knowledge of him is really from my parents who told me all about him and what he did.”

Baseball tried so hard to get it right this weekend and for the most part it did.

All the right touches were there. The All-Star party was off to an impressive start with the warm embrace of Albert Pujols and Howard during Monday’s Home Run Derby, and the red-carpet parade through the heart of downtown on Tuesday afternoon, then the emotional sight of Stan the Man rolling in from right field during the pregame festivities.

They brought back all the living Cardinals Hall of Famers to stand at home plate and greet President Obama. But for all of the legendary figures in baseball who were honored during this splendid stretch of baseball nostalgia, perhaps the most significant figure in modern baseball once again was ignored.

Nearly 40 years ago, the former three-time All-Star outfielder shook up the baseball establishment by the simple act of refusing to recognize the Cardinals’ right to trade him without his consent.

A few months later, he filed a federal lawsuit to challenge baseball’s reserve clause, appealing it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Flood ultimately lost the case, ruined his career and destroyed his personal life, but his courageous sacrifice led to an eventual upheaval of baseball’s indentured servitude, and five years later there was free agency.

If he was only a simple player, Flood should have been remembered as a special Redbird. He played on two Cardinals World Series championship teams (1964 and ’67), won seven Gold Glove Awards, batted over .300 six times and finished with a career .293 average.

“The fact that he was a terrific player was one thing,” said former major league pitcher and current ESPN analyst Dave Campbell. “But as a guy who gets that pension check every month, if he hadn’t done what he did, I don’t think I’d be getting that pension check. Or it certainly wouldn’t be as large as it is now.”

Campbell was in the National League clubhouse before the game and he was not nearly as fuzzy about Flood’s importance to baseball as were the young players who were busy getting dressed to play in the game.

“I know the guys from my era were always respectful of the fact that somebody had to take a stand and it was Curt,” he said. “For 100-plus years in baseball, it was indentured slavery basically for everybody. Once you signed your name on the dotted line, you belonged to that team forever.”

“Salaries were horrible, players were grossly underpaid, and many people believe that out of (those conditions) sparked the Black Sox scandal of 1919 where the players were so poorly paid that they were susceptible to the whims of gamblers.

“That’s why I know the players from my era certainly are very respectful and aware of Flood’s contribution,” Campbell added. “And if the players of today aren’t totally aware of that, they should be. But the truth is, they probably don’t know a lot about him.”

Political pundit and devoted baseball romantic George Will once called Flood “Dred Scott in Spikes,” which now seems to be the all-too appropriate moniker in the midst of these All-Star doings.

The indelible image of the Old Courthouse where the Dred Scott decision was rendered was carved into the Busch outfield grass, and the courthouse dome is the second-most dominant landmark jutting out on the city skyline in center field.

I saw Cardinals Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith roaming the ballpark corridor before the game and when I mentioned Flood’s name, an easy smile immediately spread across the Wizard’s bearded face.

“Curt was the first one who really challenged the system as we knew it,” Smith said. “And before there can be change, there’s always someone who has to sacrifice. He was the guy who sacrificed it all so that we can experience what we’re doing today.”

It’s time for baseball to honor and remember just how significant that sacrifice was.